Precipitation-driven carbon balance controls survivorship of desert biocrust mosses.Ecology. 2012 Jul; 93(7):1626-36.E
Precipitation patterns including the magnitude, timing, and seasonality of rainfall are predicted to undergo substantial alterations in arid regions in the future, and desert organisms may be more responsive to such changes than to shifts in only mean annual rainfall. Soil biocrust communities (consisting of cyanobacteria, lichen, and mosses) are ubiquitous to desert ecosystems, play an array of ecological roles, and display a strong sensitivity to environmental changes. Crust mosses are particularly responsive to changes in precipitation and exhibit rapid declines in biomass and mortality following the addition of small rainfall events. Further, loss of the moss component in biocrusts leads to declines in crust structure and function. In this study, we sought to understand the physiological responses of the widespread and often dominant biocrust moss Syntrichia caninervis to alterations in rainfall. Moss samples were collected during all four seasons and exposed to two rainfall event sizes and three desiccation period (DP) lengths. A carbon balance approach based on single precipitation events was used to define the carbon gain or loss during a particular hydration period. Rainfall event size was the strongest predictor of carbon balance, and the largest carbon gains were associated with the largest precipitation events. In contrast, small precipitation events resulted in carbon deficits for S. caninervis. Increasing the length of the DP prior to an event resulted in reductions in carbon balance, probably because of the increased energetic cost of hydration following more intense bouts of desiccation. The season of collection (i.e., physiological status of the moss) modulated these responses, and the effects of DP and rainfall on carbon balance were different in magnitude (and often in sign) for different seasons. In particular, S. caninervis displayed higher carbon balances in the winter than in the summer, even for events of identical size. Overall, our results suggest that annual carbon balance and survivorship in biocrust mosses are largely driven by precipitation, and because of the role mosses play in biocrusts, changes in intra-annual precipitation patterns can have implications for hydrology, soil stability, and nutrient cycling in dryland systems.